Photojournalism in the Age of Scrutiny

Photojournalism’s new age of scrutiny has been making news on various fronts in recent weeks.  
 
A leading organization of visual journalists, the Society for News Design, has adopted a new ethics code, just as two new controversies emerged that questioned the integrity of photographic images.
 
Consider the landscape:
 
Reporters who do their journalism with cameras now have at their disposal tools and techniques that provide them with more choices than ever in the ways they document and edit their images. Photographers who once had to abandon the scene of a story in order to process and print are now able to remain in the field as they file digitally direct from cameras or select, edit and transmit from their laptops. The resulting images are often distributed to audiences almost immediately via Website portals.
 
On the receiving end are news consumers far better equipped to evaluate the integrity of the photographs — both for accuracy and aesthetics — and to make themselves heard when they believe photojournalists and their news organizations have fallen short.
 
All of this has created an intense need for ethical standards and guidelines to help photographers measure up — and to provide a common understanding among journalists and viewers, readers and users about what constitutes fair and accurate visual reporting.
 

We’ve had some great news on that front in recent weeks, along with some good news and some news that was not so good.
 
Let’s start with the great news — the approval by SND of a set of standards that will help photojournalists address the issues raised by several recent controversies. As one of the drafters of the SND document, I’m especially anxious to see them put to use.
 
The first ethics code in SND’s 27-year history aligns the organization with The National Press Photographers’ Association in both groups’ quest to raise the standards of ethical decision-making in the practice of visual journalism. 

Bill Gaspard, who coordinated the two-year development of the code, presented it to a luncheon crowd of more than 500 people during SND’s recent national convention in Orlando.
 
“I could not be more pleased with the efforts of this group,” said Christine McNeal, deputy managing editor of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel and immediate past president of SND. “Our core group brought the discussion about these very critical topics to the journalism world. Now we must continue the discussion and help make this a reality. It is crucial.”
 
Gaspard, who is deputy managing editor of The Las Vegas Sun and a former SND president, said he  believes that “if you look into the language of the code you can find words that will guide you through any  ethical situation that you face,” and is joined in this effort by John Long, a veteran photojournalist who serves as picture editor for the The Hartford Courant and as ethics chair for NPPA.

In an e-mail to Poynter Online, Long said: “We have to protect our integrity at all costs. The NPPA Code of Ethics and the new SND Code of Ethics show there is a thirst for integrity among visual journalists. We see our credibility, our integrity, our very existence as a profession threatened by today’s ethical transgressions. These codes also show that we are in an age of transition and evolution in ethics.
 
“Our members want a ‘Ten Commandments’ set of rules, but that is not possible right now. As technology evolves, so do the ethics. Both codes try to address this. Both codes encourage their members to be as honest as they can be while being open to evolving conditions.”


 
That progress on standards was accompanied by the two controversies — one involving The New York Times, the other, CBS News.
 
The Times case centers on a photograph by accomplished staff photographer and former picture editor Jim Wilson. The photo shows soldiers in Iraq gazing upward at a member of the Purrfect Angelz dance group in Iraq. Suspicious critics of the photo, published on Page One of the Sunday, Aug.  27 edition of the Times, questioned what happened to a microphone cord that appeared to disappear into thin air in the middle of the photo.

Michele McNally, the Times’ assistant managing editor for photography, characterized the controversy as more a reflection of the general questioning of photojournalism than as specific criticism aimed at the Times.
 
“Ever since the most recent Reuters discovery (of altered photos of the Israeli-Hezbollah fighting) many people have taken it upon themselves to question the veracity of all images” she said in an e-mail to Poynter Online. “One should note, during this particular war, each side is continually trying to prove an ‘agenda’ in all media outlets. They call into question everything, every usage, balance. You cannot persuade either side that you have (no agenda) because to them, there is no other truth but their own.”
 
The Times has very clear guidelines in place that prohibit image manipulation without clear cause and disclosure:
Photography and Images.
Images in our pages that purport to depict reality must be genuine in every way. No people or objects may be added, rearranged, reversed, distorted or removed from a scene (except for the recognized practice of cropping to omit extraneous outer portions). Adjustments of color or gray scale should be limited to those minimally necessary for clear and accurate reproduction, analogous to the “burning” and “dodging” that formerly took place in darkroom processing of images. Pictures of news situations must not be posed. In the cases of collages, montages, portraits, fashion or home design illustrations, fanciful contrived situations and demonstrations of how a device is used, our intervention should be unmistakable to the reader, and unmistakably free of intent to deceive. Captions and credits should further acknowledge our intervention if the slightest doubt is possible. The design director, a masthead editor or the news desk should be consulted on doubtful cases or proposals for exceptions.
In an e-mail interview about the Iraq photo, Jim Wilson said that he could not believe that so many people believed there was some sort of conspiracy involved. He said he wanted to set the record straight: “The important thing to note is that this is a straight picture — there are no Photoshop tricks, manipulation or any other thing going on in this picture.”
 
He said nothing was “removed from the image nor was anything enhanced.”
 
When asked to describe the circumstance of the coverage, here’s how he responded: 

It was a terrible place to shoot and as you might well imagine, the Marines certainly did not want me standing anywhere that I might block their view of the action on stage. At one point, one of the Marines gave me a pretty hard time about standing on a chair at the edge of the stage. After the show was over, he lightened up and we had a decent conversation. He apologized and both of us departed with smiles on our faces. But at the time, it was a little tense.

The dancer was standing still but moving the hand she held the microphone in as she spoke to the  Marines. That’s why that part of the cord is blurred. Some of the Marines were moving as well (you can see some blurred hands in the photo).

I shot the picture at ISO 800 at 1/6 sec f2.8. The cord was moving as the dancer held the microphone in her hand, moving it as she talked to the Marines. The blurred cord is in the photo (the sort of dark wavy line against the background). I used the one camera-mounted strobe (portable flash) I had with me in a cavernous room (it had 40-foot ceilings and was the size of a gym) lit only by a couple of flourescent lights — no stage lighting or anything like that existed. The stage was lit by the ambient light in the room. I shot five frames of that particular segment of the show.
McNally said she stands behind Wilson and the photograph, adding that “the Times relies on an ‘art production team that prepares images for printing (and) scrutinizes pictures. If they see random pockets of odd pixilation, or other discrepancies as they enlarge the image, they will contact the desk.  “


The not-so-good news is brought to us by CBS’s Watch! magazine — the miracle Katie Couric digital diet that reduced her neck and waistline digitally to make her look about 20 pounds lighter.
 
In an interview with USA Today, Gil Schwartz who is the editor in chief of Watch! and a CBS news spokesperson confirmed, that an “overzealous” photo editor had improperly manipulated the photo and that “this is not something that is going to happen again.”

CBS said different standards govern the network’s entertainment and news publicity operations and that Ms. Couric and CBS News management had no knowledge of the retouching. 
 
Generally, news photography reflects high standards of accuracy and clarity to ensure integrity and trust with viewers and readers. When it comes to TV publicity photographs, on the other hand, digital corrections and alterations are commonplace. Watch! magazine has a reported circulation of 400,000, according to USA Today, and is distributed on American Airlines flights and at other national locations.
 
Asked about such manipulation in an e-mail interview with Poynter Online, Mick Cochran, director of photography at USA Today, said: “Photojournalism has always been an art and a craft. The art is in a photographer’s mental processes being translated into a visual image that is true and that can be understood by others. The craftsmanship is in the making of the image all the way through the final print.
 
“But now the final product is millions of pixels on a small screen.  The print is gone once the image leaves the screen. So the craftsmanship will also disappear unless we leave time for the image to settle on the screen, be scrutinized for imperfections, and be made as accurate as it can be (not being reality).  In the charged world of news photography, the time to do that is slipping away, both in the field and in the bureau.”
 
Photography always has — and should always continue to have — its creative dimension. In the end, the best way to maintain integrity is to provide skilled and thoughtful picture editors and other newsroom staff with the time they need to do their jobs.
 
The good news here is the number of people in our communities and audiences who are really looking closely at pictures. With greater visibility — and respect for — the standards of photojournalism reflected in the new SND code, more of that audience will see how photographic techniques can be used to inform rather than deceive.

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